Transcript: Eradicating Library Deserts

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Interview with Jill Hurst-Wahl
For podcast release Monday, January 16, 2017

KENNEALLY: There are more of these than the number of McDonald’s restaurants across the United States, more even than the number of towns and cities in all 50 states, yet they are hiding in plain sight. Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. The inconspicuous and ubiquitous institution is the public library – as much part of the national landscape as baseball diamonds, football fields, and strip malls. Given the American origins of the public library – the first such places emerged in colonial times – this may be unsurprising. Three centuries later, the public library is a global institution, and the US has long since lost its early lead as library pacesetter.

A trained librarian and a devoted library advocate, Jill Hurst-Wahl is associate professor of practice in the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and the director of its master of science in library and information science program. In her latest post on the Digitization 101 blog, Hurst-Wahl notes the creeping spread of library deserts across our country. She calls for librarians and others to irrigate those deserts with innovative approaches to information sharing. Jill Hurst-Wahl joins me now from Syracuse, New York. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Jill.

HURST-WAHL: Chris, thank you for having me.

KENNEALLY: We’re delighted you can join us, Jill. Libraries is a topic we only touch on rarely on Beyond the Book, but it is so important to publishing and indeed to the world of information. You make some interesting observations in this blog post, a group of numbers here – statistics that I was unaware of. Let’s tell our audience about them. Let’s start with the basic number, and that is the number of libraries in the United States and how our country rates on a global spectrum.

HURST-WAHL: That’s correct. So my blog post really builds on a blog post done by the I-School – my I-School – last fall on a ranking of public libraries by country – I should say libraries by country – around the world. And when I looked at the list, I was just amazed at the number of libraries that are available to book lovers around the world, but then dismayed when I realized where the United States ranked. We ranked 62nd on the list.

The statistics are a little hard to get at, because there’s not one big number of libraries in the United States. But the American Library Association estimates 119,000 libraries – in fact, over 119,000 libraries – in the United States. That seems like a lot. But then when I compare that number to other things, it’s not so many. So the number of libraries in the United States is more than McDonald’s, which is a statistic that we frequently hear. But it doesn’t really resonate with us the way we think until we recognize how many McDonald’s there really are and we recognize that they’re very visible, and our public libraries are not so visible.

KENNEALLY: I think the other number that’s really important is not so much the total library figure but how many people those libraries serve. That’s important as well.

HURST-WAHL: That is very important. Again, doing the statistics, doing some straight math, my estimate is that a library in the United States serves about 2,700 people. That’s a great number. Think about any town you go through and think that that area has one library per 2,700 people. But then you think about what I call library deserts, where there aren’t that many libraries servicing that many people.

So I did a calculation for my county, which is Onondaga County here in New York State, just based on public libraries – again, not thinking about school or academic libraries. But that gets me to 14,600 people per library – interesting number – and recognizing that those are large sections of people who may or may not really be near their public library. If they could go to a school library and use that library as their public library, the ratio is much better. We know that school libraries generally aren’t open to the public. And academic libraries aren’t generally open to the public. So when you count in all those libraries, the ratio really gets quite nice. But not all of those libraries really service everyone, and that’s something I think we have to take into account.

KENNEALLY: Right. For people listening, this ratio of library to population – 2,700 was the average, you mentioned, in the United States. But in the countries that top the list as sort of some of the best countries for book lovers – in Slovakia, I believe it’s really a quarter of that, so there’s one library for every 700 or so population. That’s a big difference.

HURST-WAHL: That’s a big difference. And that’s taking into account a wide variety of libraries that they have available to them, so again thinking about what the libraries are and dividing that in the population. Maybe, realistically, if I would go to Slovakia, I would say that not everyone has access easily to a library, but statistically it’s a very favorable ratio.

KENNEALLY: Indeed it is. And so your argument in the blog post, Jill Hurst-Wahl, is that libraries should stand out more – as you say, in a way that we know McDonald’s is there because we can see those golden arches. What are some things you’re thinking about? How can library clients – who are the public, after all – see to it that libraries do stand out more? And what can librarians do?

HURST-WAHL: Well, so let’s think about McDonald’s for a second. More public libraries than McDonald’s. That statistic gets thrown out frequently because the McDonald’s are so visible. We have them in our towns and cities, in our airports, in our malls. But that’s not where libraries are. Libraries are often in the central part of a city or a town on a main road, but sometimes not. Sometimes they’re kind of tucked away in some place where there is land available. They don’t always have flashy signage, have arrows pointing out where they are.

So making them more visible – flashy, if you will – I think is something that would help our libraries – kind of pointing out that that’s where they are. Think about the neon that our fast food places have. Why can’t our libraries have really nice signage and maybe a little bit of neon? Placing libraries in more high-traffic areas – so why not have libraries in malls, in airports, in train stations, in places where people are congregating and where they have extra time and might be interested in borrowing a book?

Now, I can imagine you saying, but Jill, you go to the airport, you borrow a book, you’re going to lose it. What if you could go to the airport and download an ebook or do something else at a library branch at the airport that wasn’t just borrowing a book but maybe doing some research, maybe having access to some digital resources, and yes, maybe an ebook for that flight?

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s a wonderful idea, because it really gets to the heart of where libraries stand in the 21st century. They’re about much more than just books – not just checking out a book in that kind of classic Hollywood idea of what a library’s about. You point out a few of these. These are places for access to information of all kinds, not just information published by the big five. It’s information – public information – data around science and medicine. It’s about literacy training. And it’s about having safe places – places that people of all backgrounds and of incomes can feel that they’re welcome and are safe. Tell us about your thoughts that really libraries are much more than about books.

HURST-WAHL: I’m glad that you brought up about libraries being safe places. In the world today, we need places where people are safe to learn, safe to inquire, safe to have conversations. I see safe places not as being safe from difficult conversations, but being places that are safe to have those conversations, safe to have those types of inquiries that you want to have. So as a part of our fabric in the United States, a part of our fabric across the world, I think libraries play an important part in being a place that’s safe for inquiry. And as we all know, inquiry in 2017 is going to be very important as we challenge many things that are happening around the world.

KENNEALLY: Finally, Jill, the notion is of a library as an information pathway. You’ve been talking about airports. I think about runways for information. What is an information pathway for you?

HURST-WAHL: Boy, you know, when you use the word pathway, that really puts my mind in several different directions. So libraries first as a place where people can put themselves on a path for acquiring information, for investigating something that’s important to them. Libraries can create pointers for people, can really help people map out where they want to go intellectually.

I think of also that you need a pathway to the library. So you need some sort of an information pathway that points you to the libraries in your county, in your city, in your state. Whether that’s signage, whether that is information that you’re picking up in other locations, whether it’s fliers, posters in buses – whatever it is, you need something that points you to the library or to the libraries in your community.

If you have a health concern, where is the library that you should be asking those health questions of? If you have a legal question, where is that library? Or if it’s just a general I-need-to-know question, where should you be going to be asking those questions, whether it’s going in person or going online?

KENNEALLY: I really enjoy thinking about it this way. It’s a very creative approach to finding the right place and the right space for libraries. If we go back to this idea of more than the number of McDonald’s restaurants, perhaps we need kind of a Happy Library Meal or something like that – a Happy Information Meal that would get people seeing libraries in a different and more essential way.

HURST-WAHL: When you go to some fast food restaurants, you do get that little prize, especially for kids. So isn’t that kind of an interesting thought, that you go to the library and there’s something waiting for you there that you take away, whether it’s a little prize for a child or something else that reminds you of this happy place called the library?

KENNEALLY: Well, we appreciate that suggestion, and we’ve enjoyed chatting today on Beyond the Book with Jill Hurst-Wahl. She’s associate professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies as well as a trustee for the Onondaga County Public Library. Jill Hurst-Wahl, thanks so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.

HURST-WAHL: Chris, thank you for having me. I’ve really appreciated this.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center. With its subsidiaries RightsDirect in the Netherlands and Ixxus in the United Kingdom, CCC is a global leader in content workflow, document delivery, text and data mining, and rights licensing technology. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond the Book.